Like sands through the hour glass, these are the days of our Legislature’s lives.
When General Assembly candidates run for office, they talk of high ideals such as reforming education, creating jobs, saving tax dollars and stifling sexual offenders, even restricting abortion, adopting a state rifle or making the Holy Bible Tennessee’s state book.
But even though they do tend to this business during the light of day, much of the talk emanating from Capitol Hill has to do with what happens after sundown: mainly who’s involved romantically with whom.
During a summer special session called to tweak a new DUI law and keep $60 million in federal highway funds, the House of Representatives spent most of its energy ejecting Jeremy Durham on misconduct charges, using an attorney general’s report showing he sexually harassed 22 women at the Legislative Plaza.
The majority of Republicans were glad to send him packing, as were Democrats, but every time the minority party tried to bring up part of the attorney general’s report detailing a female staff member (Jane Doe #24) being fired by a female House member (Rep. Jane Doe #33) after being subject to Durham’s harassment, they were stymied.
The representative apparently was a close friend of Durham, maybe a friend with benefits, according to a Tennessean article, making her the second woman representative believed to have gotten tight with Durham. (She isn’t so anonymous anymore, either, after a Nashville Scene reporter identified her as Rep. Mary Littleton of Dickson. Another Scene report names all the anonymous legislators in the AG’s report.)
Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons called for Rep. Jane Doe #33 to identify herself on the House floor during the special session. She declined.
Then, Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell tried to quote from that section of the attorney general’s report, but rather than listen to him, Republicans called for the final vote on Durham’s demise.
Two months later and with the House election less than a month away, Democrats aren’t letting the matter die. They want two things: An official investigation and a response from Rep. Jane Doe #33.
Memphis Democrats Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. G.A. Hardaway say they want an inquiry into the matter to determine if someone on Capitol Hill violated state law by having the young woman dismissed after sexual advances by Durham.
“We assumed that the AG conducted a credible investigation … and what we find in that report is what he believed happened and if it’s true, then it seems to us there is someone who is still on Capitol Hill, somebody who’s still wielding influence, who has broken Tennessee law. Tennessee law forbids this kind of retaliation against a victim,” Harris says.
The AG’s report, requested by an ad hoc committee appointed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, says the female staff member met Durham in 2013 as a legislative assistant for a female state representative who was close friends with Durham. The former state representative made numerous sexual advances toward her, making her feel uncomfortable and sexually harassed, Harris notes.
At the end of the 2013 session, the staff member was reassigned but was given no other offer for employment at the Legislature, Harris says.
“The attorney general’s investigation also found that she was badmouthed, that they badmouthed her around the Capitol. And so both of these actions, the firing of her and the fact that they kind of badmouthed her, seems to us like retaliation against the victim,” Harris explains.
Democrats’ preliminary review found it is against state law for a person to retaliate or discriminate against another person because that person opposes a practice declared as discriminatory, including sexual harassment.
State law also addresses specific employment practices and prohibits retaliatory action against an employee who is the victim of sex discrimination, which includes sexual harassment, according to Harris.
Dubbed Jane Doe #24 in the AG’s report, the young woman was invited by Durham one evening in February 2013 to have drinks with him and Rep. Jane Doe #33 at her office at the end of a work day.
“According to Jane Doe #24, Rep. Jane Doe #33 appeared surprised and annoyed that Rep. Durham invited her. When the conversation between Rep. Jane Doe #33 and Rep. Durham turned to a discussion of breast implants, he looked at Jane Doe #24 below the neck, nodded toward her and said, ‘Some people don’t need them,’” the report states.
The staff member said Durham’s comment made her feel uncomfortable but she didn’t complain because she was afraid her hopes of obtaining a better staff position would be jeopardized.
Durham invited her out for drinks shortly after that at the Tin Roof, and she went, thinking they were meeting a group, the report states.
Instead, Durham was there alone and tried to seduce her, walking her back to her apartment, asking if he could come inside and then kissing her.
The staffer said she was caught off-guard and told him, “You’re married” and said something like, “This is not going to happen.” He laughed as he walked away, according to the report.
Another time, he parked across from Rhythm, where she met some friends, and asked her to stop by afterward, the report states. She got into his car, then accidentally knocked some of his campaign stickers on the floor. He stuck one on her leg and said, “You look pretty hot with my sticker on,” the report states.
She said she felt “super uncomfortable” with the situation because he was married, and even though she was flattered by his attention, she had no intention of having an affair with him. After finding out he tried to get one of her friends to meet him, she kept her distance, according to the report.
A few weeks before the 2013 session ended, Rep. Jane Doe #33 found out the staff member had been communicating and hanging out with Durham, the report states. When the session ended, Human Resources notified her that Rep. Jane Doe #33 wanted her reassigned.
Even though she received a letter of good standing from Human Resources and interviewed for other staff positions, she wasn’t hired at the Legislature.
“She heard from legislative staff member John Doe #32 that Rep. Jane Doe #33 did not speak well of her to other members. As a result, she said she was afraid to make Rep. Durham mad, thinking he would take Rep. Jane Doe #33’s side against her since they were close friends.”
Despite being let go from the Legislature, she continued receiving text messages from Durham and a call one night when he sounded drunk asking if he could come over, the report states.
Another time, when she refused to come outside, he texted “pics?” She figured he meant naked pictures because he could see regular pictures of her on Facebook, according to the report.
The former staff member said she was ashamed for allowing things with Durham to continue so long. She had wanted to be a lobbyist but no longer wants such a job because of her encounter with Durham.
“It’s all gone,” she states in the report.
Piling it on
In light of the Nashville Scene’s decision to supply the name of Rep. Jane Doe #33, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart and Rep. Bo Mitchell did what the outnumbered Democrats do: They held a press conference.
Stewart called for Rep. Jane Doe #33 to come forward and respond to the allegations, saying, “I think her silence speaks volumes.”
Using the same name the Scene used (and the one tossed around Capitol Hill for some time now), Stewart contends Littleton needs to confirm she is Jane Doe #33 and take responsibility for the staffer’s firing, then resign, or establish that she’s not Jane Doe #33 and address the allegations in the AG’s report point by point.
Stewart also says House Speaker Beth Harwell knows the identity of Rep. Jane Doe #33 because, by statute, she is responsible for the hiring and firing of House employees.
By not addressing the charges in the attorney general’s report and doing nothing to help the young woman, Harwell “essentially became a part of the conspiracy of silence and inaction that led to this situation,” Stewart says.
Short of the attorney general asking the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter, Stewart says he will request the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
Mitchell reiterates his call for a state investigation and makes note of the wall he hit on the House floor in August.
“During the special session, the AG’s report was the evidence we were told that was used to expel a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. When I was finally recognized on the House floor to speak, I started reading about this incident and Rep. Jane Doe #33 and her staffer that she had fired.
“My mic was immediately cut off,” Mitchell says. “I think that speaks volumes to the people of Tennessee that there’s a cover-up going on here. And it’s time for the cover-up to end. It’s time for the attorney general to step forward and do his job. He’s the one who reported the crime in his report. It’s time we move and show the people of Tennessee that the Tennessee General Assembly is a place of integrity.”
Oddly enough, Stewart and Mitchell ran headlong into an interrogation by Tennessean reporters when they made their statements, including questions about whether they had direct evidence of Jane Doe #33’s identity and whether Jane Doe #24 was fired for being sexually harassed.
The Tennessean’s reporters, who have declined to name the people for fear of identifying the victims, might have been irritated about the Scene identifying Littleton as Rep. Jane Doe #33. Maybe they didn’t like being beaten to the punch by a free newspaper.
Yet in their own report, they said they talked to Jane Doe #33, signaling they know her, and in the same article they reported Jane Doe #24 said she felt she was fired because of a relationship between Durham and her boss, Jane Doe #33.
One wonders if they had direct proof of that alleged affair. Consider this as well: Outside the walls of the Legislative Plaza, 99.99 percent of Tennesseans don’t know the John Doe and Jane Doe staffers.
Most Republicans, other than an outlier, haven’t gotten involved with this matter. Outgoing state Rep. Rick Womick, a Rutherford County Republican, is keeping up his attack against Harwell, filing two ethics complaints against her, one saying she abused her office in the Durham investigation. The other says she allowed House Chief Clerk Joe McCord to harass a former office assistant.
Other Republicans act as if they don’t know what the heck’s going on.
Amid the acrimony, Human Resources director Connie Ridley is keeping her distance from Democrats’ complaints. It’s not even legal to say whether an investigation is being made, though Democrats are confident nobody’s looking into this.
Asked about their claims of lawbreaking either by a state representative or HR director, Ridley says, “The General Assembly has consistently maintained a policy prohibiting retaliation. Complaints alleging retaliation would be reviewed by my office. Any determination of a violation would result in prompt corrective action being taken.”
Speaker Harwell, meanwhile, points out Ridley has been in charge of human resources since 1995 and is “extremely competent and professional,” having served in the executive branch for 17 years before taking over HR.
“I am confident that any review of our processes would show that we have fair hiring practices and comply with all state and federal laws regarding personnel,” Harwell says in a statement.
As noted previously, Harwell says she believes her opponents are playing politics, and they probably are, as she faces Democrat Chris Moth on Nov. 8. During the special session, she said, “I think the Democrats just kind of always look for something, right? That’s their job, and I understand.”
But with the outing of Rep. Jane Doe #33 and the continual harping by Democrats for a response, eventually something’s got to give.
Remember, it took three years for Harwell to go after Durham, though she and other Republicans claim they didn’t know the extent of his gamesmanship until this year.
It might require less time for her to take down Jane Doe #33. As the Legislature’s world turns, the election is drawing nigh.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.